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Assessing our longest war

Legion Post begins lecture series to look at the war on terror, 15 years after 9/11

BRATTLEBORO—How do you engage and honor the veterans of a conflict that still is going on?

Lt. Col. John Hagen, who is in the process of concluding a 28-year career in the Air Force, is asking that question as part of his new role as vice-commander of Brattleboro American Legion Post 5.

He is helping to organize a series of events at the Post 5 headquarters on Linden Street to put the last 15 years of what become known as the Global War on Terror, or GWOT, for short, into social and historical perspective.

“We wanted to use the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attack as a time to assess the resulting conflicts and their impact in Vermont and on Vermonters,” Hagen said. “We also want to recognize Brattleboro-area veterans who have served during this period, and provide the community with a series of events that invite discussion and sharing of perspectives about the ongoing conflict.”

Given that his academic specialty is the examination of intractable conflict, for which Hagen earned his doctorate at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University, putting together a program looking back at America’s longest war seems fitting.

A new kind of conflict

When planes hijacked by terrorists struck the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, Hagen said he was on duty as an operations officer at the U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, the arm of the military tasked with leading counter-terrorism and unconventional warfare missions.

“We were watching it on TV like so many other Americans, and couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” Hagen said.

While the collapse of the World Trade Center and the nearly 3,000 people who died got most of the media attention, Hagen believes the attack on the Pentagon shouldn’t be forgotten.

On Thursday, Sept. 8, at 7 p.m., Post 5 and Vermont PBS will present a special screening of a new PBS documentary, “911: Inside the Pentagon.”

Hagen said few details of that attack on the heart of the Defense Department, which left 184 people dead, have been heard publicly since 9/11. “We jumped at the chance to show this film to start off the series,” he said. “It’s a good way to start this discussion.”

Hagen said the 9/11 attacks, and the 15 years of conflict that followed, were something new for the U.S. military to wrap its collective mind around.

“Wars used to have a defined beginning and end,” he said. “They used to be fought on battlefields against nation-states. But this war is not a war for territory or resources. It’s a war of ideology, waged by nonstate actors, that takes place on a battlefield without a defined front line.”

Different angles

The difficulties of this new type of war will be covered Sept. 15, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., when retired Vice Admiral Barry M. Costello will provide an overview of the global nature of the conflict.

Costello, a Rutland native and brother of Brattleboro attorney Thomas Costello, was commander of the Navy’s Third Fleet, stationed in the Persian Gulf, from 2005 to 2007.

The Vermont perspective will be provided by Chris Day, assistant principal of Brattleboro Union High School and a major in the Vermont Army National Guard. Day was deployed to Afghanistan with Vermont’s 86th Infantry Brigade in 2010. His talk is on Oct. 20, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

The talks will wrap up on Nov. 10, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., when Brattleboro Union social studies teacher Bill Holiday will look at how the last 15 years of war have affected the home front. Hagen says the details of the presentation are still in progress.

Finally, on Jan. 28, 2017, a dinner is planned at the Legion to honor veterans who have served since 2001, Hagen said. He hopes, as with similar events the Legion has put on in the past couple of years to honor Civil War and Vietnam War veterans, that local high school students will be involved in preparing the tributes.

According to the Department of Defense, 7,008 U.S. military members have been killed on duty worldwide since 9/11. Of that number, 42 soldiers with ties to Vermont have died on active duty, including Army Pfc. Kyle Gilbert of Brattleboro and Army First Lt. Mark Dooley of Wilmington.

Reaching recent veterans

Hagen says this series is an important event for Post 5, and hopes it can start some conversations and, perhaps, encourage younger veterans to join the American Legion.

“If we want to continue to be a relevant veterans organization, we have to reach out to all veterans,” he said.

Especially, he said, the two generations of men and women who served in the military since the end of the draft in 1973.

“Since the end of the draft, military service has been a choice, not an obligation,” Hagen said. “For those of us who joined, we joined out of a desire to serve others. The Legion, at its best, is a service organization dedicated to serving all veterans, and being a member is a way to continue that spirit of service.”

Hagen joined the Air Force ROTC program at Boston University in 1984. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1988, his first assignment in the Air Force was as a Missile Combat Crew Commander at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.

With the end of the Cold War, he transitioned from missile officer to academia, leading the AFROTC program at Norwich University and getting his first master’s degree (M.S., space studies) in the mid-1990s. That was followed by three more master’s degrees, culminating in his Ph.D. in international relations from Tufts University’s Fletcher School.

He was a student and then an instructor at the Air Command and Staff College, and then at the Fletcher School, before being deployed to Iraq in 2010 as a military advisor to the United Nations’ mission. At that point, U.S. forces were being drawn down, and the Iraqis were starting to take over security responsibilities.

Hagen finished his career as an assistant professor of international relations at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and, for the past two years, as commander of AFROTC Detachment 370 at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

He said he will be officially retired from active duty in November. Though he is in the process of retiring from the Air Force, he still is a teacher at UMass, now serving as a lecturer in its Commonwealth Honors College.

Being a member of the Legion is one way he is making the transition from active-duty service member to veteran. But as he gets more involved with Post 5, he says he has noticed how few veterans from recent conflicts are members.

“That’s why we’ve tried to keep the series grounded in the people who served,” he said. “If we can get some of those people to stop in and see that we are more than just a bar, they might keep coming back.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #373 (Wednesday, September 7, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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